10/25/2012 12:03 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Human Power to Destroy, Not Create

I serve a congregation in the Hudson River Valley right outside of New York City. The Rivertown area is engaged in a fight that is at once local and global. We are fighting over land. We're fighting over 18 acres; we're fighting over more than 350 trees many of which are hundreds of years old; we're fighting over the Saw Mill River; we're fighting over countless habitats. More importantly, we're fighting for a new paradigm that values Earth as much as it values profit.

Humans cannot create the trees. We cannot create the streams. We cannot create the land or the air. We have only the power to conserve or destroy.

Over the past 150 years, change on this planet has been happening very quickly as human technology pushes the system. The photosynthesizing plants are crucial to maintaining the balance of oxygen and carbon in the atmosphere but the carbon being released by our modern life is tipping the scales rapidly in favor of carbon-based air quality.

The plants and trees have been the breathing and sustaining force on this planet, creating a life-affirming balance of carbon, methane and oxygen unknown elsewhere in our solar system. We have just the right amount of oxygen -- 21 percent -- to support life. At 25 percent the air would ignite and at 15 percent we'd suffocate. It's a delicate balance. Earth has reached a fragile stage of harmony and stability.

But we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates, thereby tipping the scales. Forty-three percent of our environmental crisis is the result of a dramatic increase of carbon into the air. After transportation, the next largest source of CO2 pollution comes from land use changes. These changes aren't always accomplished in large quantities, but in small pieces like the clearing of these 18 acres. Each city council, each little township clears tiny bits of our planet, always in the name of progress, always seeking a good solution to a small and often temporary problem.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote:

"Nature has come to be regarded as something to be used and enjoyed to the fullest extent possible. Rather than being like a married woman from whom a man benefits but also towards whom he is responsible ... nature has become like a prostitute -- to be benefited from without any sense of obligation and responsbility toward her."

An ethic of the land affirms Earth's right to existence without interference. Our task is to convert our ethical categories to include Earth as a part of our community, to see ourselves not as victor or conqueror, but neighbor. Each species has the right to exist regardless of its benefit to us. As part of the community, no special interest has the right to eliminate another for the sake of a gain to itself. White cedar, Hemlock, Cypress and other trees are being bred out because they take too long to grow; they can't replenish fast enough to make using them economically feasible, so they are removed and replaced with faster growing species. Lack of economic value is an issue for entire biotic groups like marshes, bogs, dunes and deserts that are eliminated without thought when we decide we need a new housing development or mall or highway.

That is precisely what's happening here in the Rivertowns. Eighteen acres of trees and land and animals and birds who have called that space home for generations are going to be "cleared out." The trees, the animals, the birds -- they have no rights. Their interests are not under consideration. I spoke at length with one of the developers who told me that a teenager's impulse to sleep in one of those 300 year old trees in an attempt to draw attention to her long life and ancient roots is "selfish." That tree and her neighbors need to come down to make room for a grocery store and parking lot. This man and his colleagues and governmental supporters are living out of a different paradigm than the one I'm suggesting. They live out of the dominant paradigm in which the tree has no right to exist if it gets in the way of profit. His particular lens has created a false dichotomy giving us a choice of the life of the trees OR job creation. He can't imagine all the alternatives, nor has he spent any time trying to because the trees are of no value and tearing them down is not worth any more thought. There is no significance placed on the fact that they are alive or part of this glorious, wild, fragile and incomprehensible system that is our planet.

Once the trees have been removed, once the land has been cleared and covered in concrete, there is no going back. Once we've killed our natural resources, we are not able to replace them. The destruction of yet another natural habitat, yet another swath of land, yet another collection of trees, cannot be undone.

And so here in the Rivertowns we are faced with the same question confronting communities the world over: Will we exercise our power to conserve or destroy?